Western converts find much to celebrate

Three women in Dubai have different stories but all unite in their new-found sisterhood as Eid holds deep meaning for these new Muslims.
“Eid is about celebrating and reflecting on what we achieved in Ramadan,” says Danielle Ashley, who converted to Islam.
“Eid is about celebrating and reflecting on what we achieved in Ramadan,” says Danielle Ashley, who converted to Islam.

DUBAI // Eid Al Fitr holds much deeper meaning for three western expatriates who have converted to Islam.

Jannah Deixonne, 26, from France, marked the start of Eid yesterday by praying at the Satwa Islamic Centre, where she now works.

Ms Deixonne says her conversion was triggered by a call to prayer in a shopping centre.

"I remember hearing the adhan in Mall of the Emirates," she says. "This time it captured my attention. Up until that moment, I realised I focused on objects in my life rather than my spirit. I watched women going to pray and coming out smiling."

Maria, 37, is celebrating her first Eid as a Muslim woman this week. She converted to Islam two weeks ago after joining in the fast and feeling a spiritual connection.

Maria says Islam in Europe is still regarded negatively but she feels secure practising in Dubai, which she describes as "a safe haven for meeting Islam".

"I remember visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and my interest grew," she says.

Maria enrolled in lessons with the Al Huda Sisters, who provide Islamic education classes.

"I'm excited about experiencing Eid," she says. "Converting is the biggest gift from God, as is the support from the sisters I'm blessed to celebrate with."

The "sisters" she refers to are her Muslim friends from around the world.

Danielle Ashley, a native of Vancouver, is also celebrating Eid with her Muslim friends.

"Eid is about celebrating and reflecting on what we achieved in Ramadan," she says.

Ms Ashley, 28, converted in 2007 after she noticed her colleagues praying at work and began to ask questions about Islam.

One of her co-workers told her to Google the most influential person in the world, and the search results came back with pages on the Prophet Mohammed.

"I am spending Eid with Muslim girlfriends, taking a road trip or travelling somewhere," says Ms Ashley, who works for the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and volunteers for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund.

Growing up in a ski resort town in Canada meant she had little knowledge of Islam before she arrived in Dubai in 2006.

"Many thought I was crazy because they had negative images of the Middle East but I didn't listen," Ms Ashley says.

"Islam is a simple way of life for all mankind and not just for Arabs. I want people to know how wonderfully women are treated and many other positive things."

Ms Deixonne moved to Dubai in 2008 to take up a position as a marketing manager. Her job was dynamic but left her with little personal time.

"I wanted to know why I felt unhappy if I had everything," she says.

Six months after arriving in Dubai, she visited Al Karama Mosque on a Friday morning.

"The women welcomed me and called me 'sister' even though I was non-Muslim,"Ms Deixonne says.

She accompanied the women to a local hospital for which they volunteered and after returning to the mosque they asked if she wanted to be Muslim.

"I said, 'yes'. I didn't even know the process or how to practise Islam, but felt happy," Ms Deixonne says.

The company for which she worked was not as supportive of her decision, especially when she chose to start wearing a hijab.

In 2009, she resigned.

"It's not been easy to find a full-time job with a western company," Ms Deixonne says.

She married an Emirati man she met in Australia and now teaches at the Satwa Islamic Centre and at Al Karama Mosque, where her spiritual journey began.

"Our purpose in life is not material things," says Ms Deixonne. "We can become lost in this world, but our soul is not meant to stay here."



Converting or reverting?

Muslims believe everyone is born with ‘fitra’: a natural faith and understanding of God. That is why some prefer to say they reverted to Islam rather than converted.

A hadith of the Prophet Mohammed in Sahih Muslim says: “No babe is born but upon fitra. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a polytheist.”

Debbie Jaunich, an American, prefers to say she “reverted” to Islam about 20 years ago. Today, she volunteers as a teacher of Islamic education for several organisations.

“Usually when I say I reverted it tends to spark a curious but often positive reaction,” says Mrs Jaunich, 49.

“It is the recognition that we are going back to our nature. That is the core of it and when all elements come together.”

* Maey El Shoush

Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM


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